Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Cheney - Wallace Interview Part I

Cheney's recent interviews have gotten quite a bit of attention in the blogosphere.  Here's my take on the recent interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News.

I'm going to skip the beginning parts about the economy.  I totally disagree with the administration's response to the economic crisis/recession, and in my opinion they don't have the slightest idea what they are doing.  The national security aspects of the interview are the most contentious anyway.  Cheney states that

We didn't set out to achieve the highest level of polls that we could during the course of this administration. We set out to do what we thought was necessary and essential for the country.
I take him at his word on that.  This is where I differ from extreme critics.  Although I think the administration has been lousy overall, and highly incompetent in some areas, I do not ascribe bad motives to its actions. I think that Cheney, (and Bush), did the things they did because they thought they were acting in the best interests of the country.  Cheney goes on to say
I think the fact that we were able to protect the nation against further attacks from al Qaeda for seven-and-a-half years is a remarkable achievement.
True.  If you want to blame the administration for not preventing 9/11, for all their various screwups, and for the economic crash happening on their watch, it's only fair to give them credit for preventing another attack on the U.S.  I think that's a major accomplishment, but it's also one of the administration's only great accomplishments.  Although if you are a Democrat, one of its great accomplishments was delivering Congress & the Presidency to Democratic control, and at least temporarily, putting the GOP in a big hole.

Cheney makes his case for the expanded war powers of the executive branch, vis a vis the other branches of government.  He argues

If you think about what Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, what FDR did during World War II. They went far beyond anything we've done in a global war on terror
 That's true, but the problem with that argument is twofold. First of all, just because Lincoln and FDR were able to get away with certain things, doesn't mean all future presidents should also be able to exceed their constitutional authority. Second, a civil war is always a special case, and World War Two was a declared war -- the last war that we actually entered under Congress' constitutionally-specified powers.  An undeclared war against nebulous terrorist enemies is not the same situation.  And a Congressional resolution is not the same thing as a formal declaration of war.

The vice-president argues that

you're fully justified in setting up a terrorist surveillance program to be able to intercept the communications of people who are communicating with terrorists outside the United States. I think you can have a robust interrogation program with respect to high-value detainees.
I agree with him in a broad sense, in that the executive should and does have the power to do such things.  The problem comes in the exact details.  Just because the executive has the power to do them, doesn't mean the other two branches have no say.  For example, the executive has the power to set up interrogation practices to collect intelligence.  But the judiciary has the power to determine the legality of such actions.  One power doesn't cancel out the others, as Cheney seems to believe. 

Then we get to the most commented-on section of the interview, where the vice president basically says that "as a general proposition," anything the executive does to protect the country is legal.  I agree with other critics who see this as an extreme claim of almost unlimited executive power.  There is no constitutional basis for his assertions.  And again we come back to the fact that we are not even in a declared war. Accepting Cheney's claim would mean that any time we are engaged in hostilities, the executive branch can basically do whatever it wants and ignore the other branches. During the exchange, Cheney also puts forth an intellectually dishonest argument by using the nuclear football example.  He says that the president

could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody, he doesn't have to call the Congress, he doesn't have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in.
I'm sure Dick Cheney knows that the president has that nuclear authority in order to respond to a nuclear attack on the U.S.  It does not in any way mean that he has the authority to initiate an attack on his own responsibility.  

Cheney goes on to attack the War Powers act as unconstitutional  -- pretty funny coming from someone who has just made an argument for unhindered executive power based on nothing found in the constitution. The War Powers act was Congress' lame attempt to get back some of the power they voluntarily surrendered by giving up their consitutional right to declare war.  But that's another issue.

The interview continues into some specific actions taken by the administration.  I'll adress them in Part 2.  

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